Hi everybody! For 2015, I thought I’d try something new. This year, I’m going to attempt to do one board game review every month, and to start us off, we’ve got Settlers of Catan! This was the first ‘modern’ board game I learned to play, and I was introduced to it here in Taiwan, back when I was attending Taipei American School.

Here’s the board at initial setup, before players place their first settlements

Settlers of Catan is at its heart a resource-management game. As you can see from the picture above, there are a number of different terrain types, each with a number on it. Each of those terrain types produces a specific type of resource. On each turn, a player will roll the dice, and the hex(es) with the number rolled will produce resources for their owners. You’ll notice that each number has a few dots underneath it; the more dots, the higher the likelihood that this number will be rolled. You then use your resources to buy or upgrade infrastructure, with the final goal of hitting a certain number of victory points.

How do you get victory points? The most straight-forward way is to create settlements, which are worth one point, or to upgrade a settlement to a city, which is worth two. You can also try for two ‘achievements’, Longest Road and Largest Army, which are worth two points apiece. But be careful, these can be stolen from you! The last way to get points is to buy development cards, though that’s chancy, as these cards have a lot of different possibilities in the deck.

Pixie, Cavey, and Baby Teddy are ready to start the game

At the beginning of the game, each player gets to place two settlements, which go on the corners between hexes. So basically, everyone starts with two points. Those settlements will generate resources from whatever hexes they’re touching. If you upgrade to a city, it provides double the resources. And it doesn’t matter whose turn it is to roll the dice; as long as your number comes up, you get the goods. However, only the active player gets to build stuff or initiate trades with other players.

Those are the rules at the most basic. A few additional ones worth mentioning include the thief. See the little black pawn piece up there? He starts off on the desert, but as soon as someone rolls a seven, he gets to work. Not only does he prevent resource production on whatever hex he’s standing on, but the player who moved him gets to steal a resource from the hand of his victim. Aside from rolling a seven, you can play a Knight development card to move the thief.

Another thing about rolling a seven: when that dread number comes up, anyone with eight or more cards in hand has to discard half. And since seven is the most common number to show up, this happens quite frequently!

Lastly, trading in. If you need a specific resource, you can trade in four of one type for a single copy of another. Ports makes this cheaper: the 3:1 ?s allow trading at three to one instead of four to one, while the 2:1 spots allow two to one, but only if you’re trading in the resource shown.

Cavey builds a settlement

The game supports two to four players, and I think it works fairly well with any of those numbers. Obviously, the more players you have, the longer the game will take. I think the longest game of Settlers I’ve ever played lasted about an hour and a half.

I own an older version of the game. Newer versions have been released with improved parts, such as water tiles that lock together to keep the hexes from moving apart, port tiles that more consistently show which spots have access, and even more detailed road and settlement/city pieces. The game also has several expansions and specialty versions, though I’ve never felt the need to play any of them. Plus, I know there’s a healthy Kickstarter community based on making add-ons and stuff to improve the Settlers experience.

Also worth mentioning: in my experience, there tends to be a very strong streak of beginner’s luck. When teaching Settlers to new people, the newbies tend to win more often than not!

My thoughts on the game: Settlers of Catan is a very good way to start getting into the board-gaming hobby. The rules are uncomplicated, and there are very few decisions to make each turn; you roll the dice, and if you can afford something, you buy it. If you can’t, you don’t. Player interaction is fairly low, since you can’t directly interfere with the other players. You can trade with them (or refuse to do so!), and it’s possible to block someone off from parts of the map. Despite it’s simplicity, the game is very replayable. The board is randomized each time you play, both for the layout of the hexes and for the way the numbers get distributed. This means that each game is never quite the same as the last, and you’ll need to adapt your strategy based on what resources you can access and what you can’t.

Baby Teddy tries for an ore monopoly. Doesn't quite work.

That said, Settlers is not something I pull out at gaming events that much anymore. For me, the luck element is way too high. It’s entirely possible to spend several turns doing absolutely nothing, as the numbers you need to generate resources never come up. Meanwhile, your opponents are getting huge hands and building roads and gaining points, while you just roll the dice and help them. I understand that newer versions have introduced rules to mitigate this effect somewhat, but for me the game now feels a bit too simplistic.

Final thoughts: Settlers of Catan is a great introduction into the world of board-gaming. It’s fast and easy to learn and to teach to others. It’s not quite short enough to be a true ‘filler’ game between longer, heftier ones, but if you don’t have too much time, Settlers could be a good choice. Just be ready to move on to bigger and better things once you get hooked to board gaming!

Settlers of Catan is readily available at most board game stores I’ve found in Taiwan, and you can easily find it in Chinese. It’s also gotten a popularity boost in the US recently after the Green Bay Packers became addicted to the game. If you’re looking for something to do during your family gatherings over the Chinese New Year holiday, maybe pick up a copy and introduce it to your relatives!